The Beast Below
Steven Moffat regards 'Doctor Who', not as science fiction, but a fairy tale. This episode is his attempt at bringing that to the forefront.
The episode starts in a class room located on a spaceship ('Starship UK' - imaginative title). The children seem slightly anxious and we discover that is due to the teacher being an evil looking automaton in a red glass case. One of the children gets a zero on his test and the automaton's head swivels around; it's face going from 'creepy happy' to 'creepy mild-anger'. The child is then ushered to his punishment and falls for the oldest of bond villain trap in the business; he is dropped out of the bottom of a lift and down into a fiery lift shaft of doom. Or is he? .... cue the disappointing credits sequence.
The Doctor and Amy arrive at 'Spaceship UK' where the Doctor immediately demonstrates his recently re-discovered intelligence. He rightly reads importance into the presence of crying child. He explains to Amy, through deductive logic, that this crying child reveals the seemingly normal 'SSUK' society is in fact suffering under a police state; and it's the automaton 'Smilers' which people are afraid of. The Doctor can't leave that alone, so he sets off to discover what exactly is going on here, telling Amy to investigate the child.
The Doctor heads to the engine room and works out the ship doesn't have an engine. Here he meets a potential ally who agrees with his conclusions. At the same time, elsewhere on the ship, Amy gets captured by some automaton 'Smilers' and ends up in a voting booth. She is made to watch a video, which we don't see, and she chooses after watching it to wipe what she saw from her memory. Although she doesn't remember doing this, she voted by pressing the button to “forget” rather than to “protest". The Doctor finds her and isn't happy with her actions. Tthe crying girl, who is now with the Doctor, says “Forgetting” is what everyone chooses. Now hell-bend on bringing down this Orwellian nightmare the Doctor throws a spanner in the works by pushing the protest button. The floor then falls away and they drop down the aforementioned shaft of doom.
“This isn't going to be big on dignity”
It turns out that ship is concealing and using a huge 'Star Whale' for propulsion and Amy and the Doctor find themselves have just fallen into it's mouth. They escape getting swallowed (messily) and are saved from more 'Smilers' standing guard out by the returning masked ally. She then reveals herself to be 'Liz 10' the current Queen of England. She's on the Doctor's side for fixing the police state and freeing the Star Whale from the ship.
In the end this episode builds to moral choice which is presented to the Queen, the Doctor and the Amy. The Doctor is angry that he has to sort out the human race's mistakes and is going to take Amy home because of her 'arrogance' in choosing to withhold information from him. But Amy has taken the Doctor's advice from earlier in the episode to mind and sees something he missed. She stops the Doctor in the last minute and to his surprise saves the day. He then seems to come to the realisation that on his own, he would have failed. For this overly self-assured incarnation of the Doctor, it seems this is an important turning point and further solidifies his more 'equal' relationship with Amy.
Moffat succeeds with his fairy tale episode; and it's a fairy tale which could only exist in the Doctor Who universe. There are multiple levels of subtext to this story. Amy points out to the Doctor that the 'Star Whale' creature can be compared to the Doctor in that it's the last of it's species. Then there's the voting buttons, which have obvious parallels to our real world questioning about how our democracy is run and the real choice we have. The end has the Doctor overruling human democracy, he has to pick the lesser of three evils. When he's stopped by Amy it's because of her thinking about what she's experienced and finding an ideal 4th option. This was well timed for the looming election, if only the real world were so simple as fixing everything by pressing a button.
You could also consider the 'star whale' as a metaphor for our Earth and how we should work with it rather than hurting it. The people of the ship turn off their minds and choose to ignore the 'hurt' they are causing for the sake of aimless and slow progress through space. There indeed are loads of metaphors which could be read into all this episode, others could no doubt read into it something entirely different than me. That's testament to the quality of writing in this episode. The dialogue also flows excellently, there is a creepy nursery rhyme and the Doctor has many funny and smart lines. Like last week it's this dialogue that kept my attention. For children watching Doctor Who I'm glad Moffat is able to layer in such lessons and subtext. Let's just say it's refreshing to see such intelligence in Doctor Who again.
But there were elements of the the plot that didn't work. I think it got a bit muddled around how the Queen is able to question the world in which she governs for a decade (at a time); be morally outraged at the incarceration of an animal; yet also be powerless to stop random citizens and children from getting killed if they step out of line. This doesn't even seem to be of much concern to her. The queen's aids (even the 'Demon Headmaster' himself Terrence Hardiman) also seem to perpetrate a lot of crimes, yet once the Queen returns to the control room they are quickly forgotten and dutifully follow the Queen's every command. Even if that is more deliberate social commentary, it needed more attention for it to work, perhaps an hour episode again would have given room to fix this.
But in the scheme of the episode these aren't problems which bring it down too much. In the end this was a good episode with a solid story, Matt Smith is settling into his role nicely and Karen Gillan is still showing promise for the future.